That's no ordinary maple leaf — an artist grew it from human lung cells

Like something out of Annihilation? Not quite. Elaine Whittaker's show is about creating a hopeful vision of the future.

Like something out of Annihilation? Not quite. This show is about creating a hopeful vision of the future

Elaine Whittaker. Lungs of the Earth (detail). Digital microscopy image, decellularized maple leaf with human lung epithelial cells in petri dish. 2018. (Courtesy of Red Head Gallery)

It's an open, all-white room — serene, contemplative — just the way Elaine Whittaker says she wanted it to be.

Contained, Whittaker's latest exhibition of new work, is inspired by a story she heard many times growing up.

In 1944, when the artist's mother was just 20, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a Quebec sanatorium. The next two years of her life would be spent, by and large, in a hospital bed — and the space Whittaker's created inside Toronto's Red Head Gallery is anchored by a re-creation of that narrow cot, surrounded by prints and installations that suggest the world of imagination her mother might have escaped to while recovering there.

Installation view of Elaine Whittaker's Contained, on at Toronto's Red Head Gallery to March 24. (Photo: David Williams/Courtesy of the artist)

Whittaker says the show is meant to explore "what she felt, what she went through."

A miniature white forest of alveolar branches (painted grape stems, actually) is the direct view from the bed. Spectral, altered X-Ray prints are strung in ornamental petri dishes that hang on the bed frame. Vials filled with delicate birds' wings and "helicopter" seeds appear around the gallery, hinting at the clipped dream of flying far away from this place.

And then there are the maple leaves — some spotted like infected lungs and pinned on the wall, some displayed on plinths.

You'll want a closer look at those, even if it might shake those tranquil vibes.

This piece, for instance, is called Lungs of the Earth.

Elaine Whittaker. Lungs of the Earth (detail). 2017 (Photo: David Williams/Courtesy of the artist)

It's made of translucent maple leaves.

That fact's obvious, clear as the petri dish it's sitting in.

But these particular maple leaves — and all the others in Contained — weren't crafted in a studio, but a science lab.

They were all grown from live cells — human lung epithelial cells, to be specific.

Bioart 101

"I'm a bioartist," says Whittaker, "and that means that my work is influenced and inspired by biological processes and science as well, in general. And often my work will have live organism, microorganisms, within the body of the work."

"I'm not a scientist and I don't proclaim to be a scientist," says Whittaker, who studied anthropology and visual art in her university days. But for the last couple decades, her work has often poked at our strange relationship with microorganisms, occasionally incorporating live cultures in the finished product.

We're terrified of disease — but our bodies always have microscopic guests, some helpful, some harmful. In that way, the work can be a bit of a challenge to how people think of microorganisms — and art, too, since art and the life sciences are being spliced together in these projects (albeit not literally).

But Contained, she says, has a different M.O.

'Hopeful and fantastical'

"I wasn't doing it as a science communication," she says. "Not in this show."

"My intended reaction, my hope, was that [viewers] would connect with my mother's story." The leaves — especially the Lungs of the Earth pieces — are meant to be both hopeful and fantastical, just as the technology involved is both of those things.

As for how she learned it, that began two years ago, when Whittaker started an artist residency at the University of Ottawa's Pelling Lab. It's an interdisciplinary group that brings together researchers interested in life sciences and physical sciences, art and design, and the subject that binds them: "augmented biology."

Growing live skin on LEGO men, and ears out of apples

The lab is always playing with the limits of what can be done with living cells. How can they be grown or controlled or used in different ways? Growing live skin on Lego men is one of the mind-bending examples they list on their website. So is making human ears out of apples.

(For the curious, CBC Radio's Spark interviewed the lab's director and founder, Dr. Andrew Pelling, to run through that particular experiment, and he also gives a detailed explainer in his 2016 TED Talk. As he says in that video: "What I'm actually really curious about is if one day it will be possible to repair rebuild and augment our own bodies with stuff we make in the kitchen.")

Elaine Whittaker. Fragile Forest (detail). 2017. (Photo: David Williams/Courtesy of the artist)

Whittaker would have used a similar process to produce the leaves that are part of Contained.

To grow lung cells in a leaf, the leaves themselves need to be "decellularized" first. It sounds like evicting the old cells to make room for the new. The process usually requires some unmysterious mixture of soap and water which flushes out the leaf's original cells until it's nothing but a cellulose skeleton or "scaffold." It still has the shape of a leaf, but it's empty and see-through like Scotch tape.

Attempting to grow lung cells on leaves was a purely artistic choice, she says, motivated by the straightforward symbolic connection. (Leaves are the lungs of the Earth. Lungs are, well, lungs.)

To do it, she started with live cells that were donated by another university research group. Whittaker and her lab partner (Ryan Hickey from the Pelling Lab) cultivated their lung-leaves for three to four weeks before removing the culture from an incubator. Then, each one was preserved in Epoxy, stopping the cell growth with a clear-drying coat of plastic.

'It really sets the imagination on fire'

Human/plant hybrids. It's a shocking concept, even if you didn't see Annihilation, and Whittaker gets that bioart practice can be considered radical.

"A lot of people who walk into my shows are stunned and not sure how to react or not always understanding what they're looking at until someone can talk to them about what's going on, or what's going on within the artwork itself, she says.

But there's power in that. "It really sets the imagination on fire, for a lot of people who walk in," she says. "We're all biological beings."

Elaine Whittaker. Lungs of the Earth. 2017. (Photo: David Williams/Courtesy of the artist)

Elaine Whittaker. Contained. To March 24 at Red Head Gallery, Toronto.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.